A crisis begins when we call it a crisis

17.5.2018
Emotions keep people engaged. This is why populists need to keep talking about crises.

The refugee crisis, the euro crisis, the banking crisis. A crisis is not a neutral concept. It’s an emotional term, and dubbing a phenomenon a crisis has consequences.

During the past few years, the western world has gone from one crisis to the next. The increased talk of crises is partially linked to the rise of populism, says Mikko Salmela, university researcher of social and moral philosophy at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki.

Populist rhetoric generates and maintains crises by dubbing a systemic disturbance a crisis.  Such disturbances can occur when border control fails, the economy takes an unexpected turn, or structural changes in industry or society in general result in a rise in unemployment.

Calling a disturbance a crisis justifies radical action, which is what populist parties often propose in such situations, explains Salmela.

When individual disturbances and crises are placed in a larger context and linked to other crises, an even greater threat seems to emerge. For example, if terrorist attacks in New York, London and Madrid are linked to each other, they could be discussed as a major security crisis.

 “Donald Trump, the President of the United States, employs similar rhetoric. In his speeches, globalisation, problems at the border with Mexico, crime, the cost of healthcare and taxation form a unified threat to the nation. This is essentially emotional manipulation. By frightening the public, he makes the situation feel like a crisis,” says Salmela.

Crisis rhetoric is adversarial

During unexpected events – crises – such as natural disasters or nuclear accidents, several institutions will react and try to resolve the situation. In this way, crises can bring groups of people together.

Meanwhile, populist crisis rhetoric aims to make the crisis seem permanent and generate an us-and-them dynamic. A defining element of populist crisis rhetoric is that it construes a setting of “the people”, who are threatened by the crisis, and the ones who are responsible for it.

 “By ascribing blame, populist parties create adversarial positions.”

In populist speeches, the guilty party is often the elite, which may include politicians, journalists or researchers.

The setting is not always identical. In Spain and Greece, left-wing populists blamed the 2010 debt crisis on national and international officials who were demanding strict austerity policies and severe cuts to public services.

 “Anyone harmed by the austerity measures was considered a member of the people, no matter what their ethnic or linguistic background,” Salmela explains. In this case, “the people” was defined in more heterogeneous terms than in populist movements in general.

Salmela is an emotion researcher, who investigates which human emotions can make populist rhetoric particularly effective. Such emotions include fear and shame.

 “Populists try to appeal to people’s anxieties. Populists can easily seize upon any uncertainty surrounding the economy or national security.”

According to Salmela, individualistic westerners find it difficult to handle shame when it targets us personally. We do not want to be personally responsible for failures, which makes it easier to blame others. An external scapegoat promotes unity in the group.

A European crisis becomes a national one

A crisis is an emergency which can be used to justify legislative or political changes.

Östen Wahlbeck, university lecturer in sociology at the Swedish School of Social Science, points to the so-called refugee crisis, a term that emerged in 2015. The situation was, and still is, discussed as a “refugee crisis”, as if the systemic disturbance had been that a large number of refugees arrived in Europe in a short amount of time.

 “The real systemic disturbance was that the politics of the European Union fell short. Previously agreed rules of conduct failed,” says Wahlbeck.

The system of receiving and registering refugees in southern Europe failed, and while the countries of southern Europe struggled with their debt problems, other EU countries failed to support them.

Through a major European research project, Wahlbeck is investigating the political solutions that were reached in Finland just before the so-called refugee crisis.

 “Instead of talking about the original crisis, meaning the problems with intra-EU cooperation, the conversation has been at the national level. This is to say that the refugee situation has been tackled as a national problem, with national solutions to stop and control the entry of refugees into the country.”

The transfer of the discussion from a European problem to a series of national ones may be specifically due to political agendas which stand to benefit from a fear-mongering crisis rhetoric.

Mikko Salmela cites the presidential campaign of Laura Huhtasaari (of the Finns party) in the 2018 elections as an example. Huhtasaari’s campaign hinged on a “close the borders” crisis rhetoric, even though the number of refugees entering Finland plummeted after 2015.

 “Finnish politicians proposed typically simple solutions, such as closing the borders or deporting everyone. Huhtasaari and her compatriots are trying to maintain this rhetoric, even though the crisis is over,” says Salmela.

Crisis rhetoric must not go unopposed

In addition to the rise of populism, crisis rhetoric and awareness have been boosted by the increased impact of the media in politics and society.

Systemic disturbances have happened before, but lately it has become more common to talk about such situations as crises. According to Salmela, the timespan and dynamics of the crises may also have changed with the increased media attention.

 “The duration of individual crises is shorter, and the media’s logic enhances the need to present new problems as crises,” he says.

In addition to social media, traditional news outlets play a major role in spreading crisis rhetoric and perpetuating the vicious circle of right-wing populism, as Austrian populism researcher Ruth Wodak has said. By making outrageous claims or statements that flout generally accepted values or norms, populists try to be newsworthy, and the media reports on them, as scandals are interesting and increase sales.

According to Salmela, the proliferation of crisis narratives requires resistance to temper them.

Over the past few years, several media companies have established fact-checking units, tasked with scrutinising the factual basis of claims made by politicians before they are published. Politicians may themselves also take steps to alleviate the sense of crisis.

 “This is what German Chancellor Angela Merkel did when she said ‘Wir schaffen das’, or ‘we will survive this’, during the refugee situation of 2015,” says Salmela.

It may be impossible to fully avoid crisis rhetoric, but Salmela would prefer to address the systemic disturbances that underlie various crises.

 “The resistance to populism must be able to establish that the situation is a systemic disturbance which is being addressed, as difficult as this may be.”

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